Traumata is about many things. It’s about a dimly recalled sexual assault by a paedophile neighbour. It’s about an absent father, an abusive stepfather and a neglectful mother with what sounds like borderline personality disorder. It’s about rape. It’s about being groped by a much-admired uncle. It’s about heroin and speed and paranoia and thoughts of suicide. It’s about broken relationships and a long parade of therapists.
It is, in short, about a congeries of calamities, most of them experienced by writer and academic Meera Atkinson in childhood and adolescence but all of which have had lasting psychological consequences.
So is this book a contribution to the still flourishing genre known as misery lit? Is this yet another lugubrious tale of endurance and eventual if qualified redemption? No – it would be a mistake to look for this book in the tragic-life-stories section of your local bookstore. For all its confessional intensity, Traumata is framed not as a memoir but as an essay in social and cultural criticism.
To be sure, Atkinson acknowledges that writing for her is a kind of therapy, a way of coming to terms with her own history. And she also expresses a desire to bear witness for others who have suffered domestic violence and general family dysfunction. She is writing, she says, for the sake of the voiceless, for those who have not managed to claw themselves out of the abyss of substance addiction and who are still haunted by the ghosts of a harrowing past. But she also has another more polemical purpose in view.
“This is not just about rape, or my rape,” Atkinson insists. “It’s about the big rape: patriarchy with its endemic traumata.”
Autobiography, says American literary theorist Lauren Berlant, is not always personal. And an autobiographical book is not always a memoir. Here Atkinson uses private testimony to introduce and develop a public political argument about the widespread psychological trauma caused by a male-dominated power structure in which women are systematically disadvantaged and oppressed.
Traumata is divided into nine untitled and unnumbered chapters, each of which develops in a loose, sketchy way around the narration of a particular traumatic experience. It’s a fragmentary and associative progress, with frequent digressions, and digressions within digressions, and it can sometimes be difficult to follow. Indeed, the book seems to mimic at an aesthetic level the mental experience of traumatic shock. Perhaps that’s the point? Traumata leads us into a timeless, dreamlike world in which it isn’t always possible to see a way back to the surface. And the fact that Atkinson is constantly jumping backwards and forwards in time while describing the events of her life – and that she often repeats herself or picks up a thread left dangling several chapters earlier – exaggerates this sense of disorientation.
The book is also written in a casual and rather thin style that tends towards slang. There are summary discussions of key figures in the field of trauma studies such as Judith Herman, Bessel van der Kolk and Cathy Caruth, and we are introduced to a range of clinical concepts such as transgenerational trauma, complex post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic trauma, but there is also a welter of references to less authoritative sources such as self-help gurus, online lectures and The Guardian – which is cited almost a dozen times. And then, God help us, it all culminates with a long disquisition on Nietzsche and the will to power.
Still, there’s no denying the seriousness of Atkinson’s project. Look, for example, at the careful way she balances the desire to blame and punish individual perpetrators against the need for a structural sociological analysis of gender inequality. To what extent, she asks, are individual men responsible for their violent and abusive actions when they have been conditioned by thousands of years of masculinist culture and inherited trauma? Was Atkinson’s stepfather entirely to blame for terrorising his family, or was he powerless to do anything but reproduce his own suffering in others? Atkinson’s response is striking:
But however driven by polluted passion, whatever the dark traumatic secrets of his own past might have been, I hold [my stepfather] responsible for not taking whatever steps were necessary to prevent his passing his trauma on and to protect his partner and the children in his care.
In another chapter, Atkinson describes in agonised detail her desire to publicly call out her mother – who has now passed away – for not protecting her from the abuses of her stepfather. Eventually, however, her anger recedes before a recognition of the multiple structural causes of her mother’s parental failures. What emerges is a poignant cameo sketch of the way in which patriarchal pressures undermine and distort even the most basic relationships between women.
Traumata reads in part as a kind of dark night of the soul: a long struggle with mortification followed by a gesture towards purification and transcendence. Atkinson has painstakingly anatomised the complexities of her various traumas, naming them with the help of contemporary trauma theory and connecting them to the most urgent social and political questions of our time. In this way she is able to overcome – or partly overcome – the gap of incomprehensibility that makes traumatic experience so psychologically crippling. She determinedly bridges the void of understanding in order to see her own suffering in the broader context of patriarchal social relations.
The ideal of purification remains ultimately deferred – even Atkinson expresses misgivings about her appeal to Nietzsche – but the mortification at least is real. Atkinson’s descriptions of the persistent shame she feels as she tries to write about herself and her family have a jagged sincerity that is both fascinating and disturbing; but for Atkinson the public acknowledgement of shame is a necessary political act precisely because it is disturbing. Shame can be profoundly damaging, but, as Marx once said, it is also the most revolutionary of emotions – if we have the courage to face it collectively and acknowledge our joint share in its causes. JR
UQP, 296pp, $29.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 9, 2018 as "Meera Atkinson, Traumata ". Subscribe here.